Memory of Water, by Emmi Itäranta, is Eastern Mennonite University's Common Read selection for 2016-2017. The author will be on campus in April, and a series of lectures and curricular foci are planned. (Photo by Andrew Strack)

EMU’s Common Read selection ‘Memory of Water’ addresses drought, climate change and hidden knowledge

Water, water everywhere—and so many people take it for granted. As the life-giving liquid becomes an increasingly significant global resource, though, Eastern Mennonite University wants to make sure students are thinking about it.

That’s why EMU’s Intellectual Life Committee selected Memory of Water, by Emmi Itäranta, as the Common Read selection for 2016-2017. Students, faculty and others are encouraged to engage with the text throughout the year.

“Water is a versatile theme,” says chemistry professor Tara Kishbaugh, who heads the 12-member committee of faculty, administrators, staff and students. “A number of EMU’s science faculty work on water quality-related projects. Some of these projects are collaborative with folks from the social sciences and the Center for Justice and Peacebuilding.

“Regionally, the issues of the impairment of the Chesapeake Bay watershed as well as proposed and implemented natural gas extraction are relevant to our community. The Flint (Michigan) water crisis and drought in California have been prominent in news cycles. Potable water is a valuable commodity, and one that’s likely to continue to cause conflict.”

Itäranta’s work is fiction, imagining a future world of rising seas, widespread drought and military control of the remaining freshwater supplies. The debut novel, which she wrote simultaneously in English and her native Finnish, was published in 2012 and won the Kalevi Jäntti Literary Prize for young authors and the Young Alexis Kivi Prize the following year.

It has received praise in the United States, as well. Nancy Hightower of Washington Post Book World said, “Itäranta’s lyrical style makes this dystopian tale a beautiful exploration of environmental ethics and the power of ritual,” while Publishers Weekly deemed it “a deceptively tranquil examination of a world of dust and ashes where the tenacious weed of hope still survives.”

This is the first true fiction novel in the Common Read  series, now in its fourth year. Previous selections have included Searching for Zion: The Quest for Home and the African Diaspora, a memoir about race by Emily Raboteau; The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains, by Nicholas Carr, a non-fiction work; and a first-person fictionalized memoir, The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian, by Sherman Alexie.

“People often ask what criteria are used for picking the book,” Kishbaugh says. “While many books would be good choices, we consider book length, approachability for a variety of persons, and fit with EMU’s goals, mission and current ethos. This year we chose a theme and style (fiction) before developing the short list.”

The book was given to all first-year students and used as a prompt in writing courses. Some other courses at both the Harrisonburg, Virginia, and Lancaster, Pennsylvania, campuses will include the reading in their syllabi.

Kishbaugh says that common reading provides another “connector” for people at EMU and a different angle for having conversations.

“Specifically, I think this book is a good catalyst for talking about the way that people view secrets and act on that knowledge or implied knowledge,” she says. “It also provides a catalyst for talking about climate instability and envisioning a potential future if we don’t make systematic changes to our resource consumption. It is in some ways a coming-of-age story.”

Itäranta will visit the Harrisonburg campus to speak April 2017. Other related events include a faculty-staff luncheon in September with opportunities to respond to the text; sharing from Professor Steven Johnson’s Conservation Photography class at the Nov. 2 “TGIW” discussion event; and two Suter Science Seminars with Professor Jim Yoder on Sept. 14 about stream restoration work in Bergton, Virginia, and Dr. Yanna Lambrinidou on the Flint water crisis Sept. 28.